Before he became a smug smuggler with a worn, light-speed spaceship and a furry Bigfoot companion, Han Solo wasn’t even named Han Solo. And he certainly didn’t have a princess as a girlfriend.
Where he began his hoodlum ways, how he crossed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs and the ways that he adapted to a Galactic Empire full of blaster pistols and attractive ladies is told with an impressive level of veracity in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which opens in the Twin Cities May 24.
At the center of the action is Alden Ehrenreich as young Han. While no one is going to confuse Ehrenreich with Harrison Ford, he’s good at echoing the wise-guy venality that Ford used to make Han a character to be loved and disliked at one point or another. Without reducing the role to a simple impression, he does capture the ways Ford made Han stand with a bit of a tilt, smile as if he just beat someone in a dogfight and halt a conversation to kiss a woman. As Han’s special someone, Qi’ra, “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke gets the same lip-to-lip electromagnetism that Ford used to woo Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia.
It’s easy to argue that such an iconic antihero doesn’t require a coming-of-age story. Yet Han’s character arc succeeds in deconstructing a role we all know by heart (and sometimes line by line).
It traces Han to his cocky roots, an overconfident punk climbing a very slippery learning curve — and frequently sliding to the bottom to start over again. We follow him as he evolves from small-time crime and outrunning law enforcement in a hot-rod hover car to battling the Empire’s fleet of TIE fighters. Whether he’s entirely a scoundrel or hero is a mystery too great to be answered so early in his journey.
While this prequel/origin story/caper is not a must-see chapter of the never-ending saga, like “Rogue One” it overlaps the numbered episodes in agreeable ways. It gives us cameos from notable luminaries whose presence is part of the film’s ad campaign.
Donald Glover makes a solid turn as slick, stylish gentleman thief Lando Calrissian, protective owner of the Millennium Falcon, which Han, a newly trained pilot, needs to zip through the film’s central adventure. Glover gives his scenes a sly sense of flair, protesting when someone uses a piece of his wardrobe to beat down a fire on the floor of his ship, “That’s my cape! It’s a custom piece!”
We see him play sabacc, the card game that won him the floating city he administers in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The film is peppered with such reference points, and with a cavalcade of surprises, as well. Lando’s ship first appears with cow-catcher front fenders, quickly knocked off in superspeed bumper cars collisions as Han begins to give the Falcon its signature “piece of junk” look.
As Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo gets excellent screen time and makes the wonderful bear-dog-ape creature more emotionally accessible than ever before. There also are surprise appearances by well-known members of the ensemble (including a satanic-looking Darth with a head covered in cactus thorns) as well as absences (for the first time, C-3PO is a no-show).
The take away feeling is that while the film may not break remarkable new ground, it keeps things different, interesting and action-packed throughout. Minutiae from other films appears here for comic, dramatic and nostalgic effect.
Remember when Luke Skywalker gives Leia a pair of gold dice at the end of “The Last Jedi”? That good luck trophy gets so much screen time in “Solo” that you expect the design to show up for sale on QVC.
The sophisticated navigation computer that makes the Falcon the galaxy’s hottest starship gets a logical explanation wrapped in the appearance of a splendid new droid, L3-37, Lando’s robotic “capable woman” companion. Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices her take-charge attitude so winningly that C-3PO’s whines aren’t missed.
The management of the Disney-Lucasfilm merger sees significant value in widening the franchise with sidebar stories like this and “Rogue One.” Stand-alone films are scheduled to be released every even-numbered year around summer, in between the numbered episodes set to open during the holidays in odd years. It’s a strategy created to keep new films in the pipeline while not creating a sense of exhaustion from near-identical sagas. If you’re wearied by the scrolling text that sets the scene for the regular episodes, the cut-to-the-chase energy of the stand-alones is what you’ve been waiting for.
The same could be said for “Solo’s” cavalcade of fresh faces, with Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Paul Bettany adding a welcome sense of variety. And the film’s look is a big change from earlier chapters, occurring in rainy, foggy urban and desert environments shot in gray palettes and minimalist lighting. It takes us to worlds of elite citizens and slave labor, galaxy-spanning trips and airports where no one moves without the proper papers and bribes, and recruitment ads convince civilians to “join the Empire” at war, then drop them into filthy planets as cannon fodder.
Virtually all of it is played for well-earned, cleverly timed surprises and mocking laughs. There are enough inside jokes and visual references to other films from the franchise to charm scholarly fans and sufficient stand-alone action to entice casual tourists to this universe. It’s clever, light entertainment that shoots ahead as if it was launched from an intergalactic slingshot.
Most of the time, anyway. The famously troubled production fired its original directing/cowriting duo (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of the excellent Lego and “Jump Street” fantasy comedies) for coloring outside the lines, delivering the studio a change from “Star Wars” movies that was too much of a change. That’s a shame, because I imagine their version would have been a self-mocking blast.
Reshot in the surehanded control of Ron Howard, and returned to narrative basics with a script by “Star Wars” veteran Laurence Kasdan and son Jonathan, “Solo” is reportedly 70 percent new work. You can’t call it great, but it’s a strong, competent effort from every branch of the team.